Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Year, New Venture

I'm teaching a film class for the first time. It's an undergraduate course titled "Philosophy and Film," and I'm doing it in partnership with my colleague Tanya Loughead, who is a Continental philosopher. Rather than being a course that uses films--or slivers of films--simply to illustrate philosophy, we've designed the course to accord equal time and importance to both areas. On the philosophy side, we'll read Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Foucault, Butler, and Derrida. For film, we've picked about 10 well-known, canonical titles including Ray's Pather Panchali, Bresson's A Man Escaped, Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Denis' Chocolat, Haynes' Safe, and Varda's The Gleaners and I. This being our maiden voyage into teaching cinema, we've chosen (conservatively) films with established reputations, films that have been amply discussed and written about. In addition to exams and papers, we've designed the course to include an in-class, small-group discussion component. My own primary role in the course will be to work to provide students with a basic grounding in film form, style and aesthetics. It promises to be an exciting--and unpredictable--venture.

We'd appreciate greatly any suggestions or advice from film teachers who happen to be reading. We are particularly curious about the experiences of others in using small-group discussions. But, really: any words of wisdom will be most welcome. Thanks!

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The recent film I most want to see is Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August. An excerpt from Adrian Martin's essay on it in the new issue of Indian Auteur:

Is every important, progressive film of today a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943)? Almost every Pedro Costa film, for instance, seems to return to it; and ghosts or zombies of every material sort seem to stalk or sleepwalk through the work of Albert Serra, Lisandro Alonso, Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr … But Our Beloved Month of August takes us back to a very particular moment of Tourneur’s masterpiece: the scene in which the previously subservient, glad-handing, guitar-strumming, nightclub entertainer with the wonderful name of Sir Lancelot breaks his subaltern role and strides forward to gleefully accuse the drunken, guilty white man with his deceptively lilting ditty: “Woe is me / Shame and scandal in the family …” [...]

The great Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser once mused on the difference between a screen wall and a solid wall – for him, the convenient key (like so many mundane, everyday phenomena, of the kind that Gomes also alights upon) to understanding our civilisation and its discontents. The solid wall marks, for Flusser, a neurotic society – a society of houses and thus ‘dark secrets’, of properties and possessions. And of folly, too, because the wall will always be razed, in the final instance, by the typhoon or the flood or the earthquake. But whereas the solid wall gathers and locks people in, the screen wall – incarnated in history variously by the tent, the kite or the boating sail – is “a place where people assemble and disperse, a calming of the wind”. It is the site for the “assembly of experience”; it is woven, and thus a network.

It is only a small step for Flusser to move from the physical, material kind of screen to the immaterial kind: the screen that receives projected images, or (increasingly) holds computerised, digital images. From the Persian carpet to the Renaissance oil painting, from cinema to new media art: images (and thus memories) are stored within the surface of this woven wall. A wall that reflects movement, but itself increasingly moves within the everyday world: when I was a little child and once dreamed of taking a cinema screen (complete with a movie still playing loudly and brightly upon it), folding it up and putting in my pocket so I could go for a stroll, I had no idea it was a predictive vision of the future, the mundane laptop computer or mobile phone.

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A couple of links:

-- At the Guardian: "Haiti's only film school was destroyed in the earthquake, but the mini-movies that its students have made since are a living chronicle of the still-unfolding crisis and will serve as enduring testaments to the power of cinema to inform and move."

-- At Sight & Sound, several critics and curators pick (and display) their favorite online videos of 2009.

-- Senses of Cinema World Poll 2009.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Film Criticism of Tim Hunter

(Thank you to sleuthing super-cinephile Adrian Martin!)

Tim Hunter is probably best known to film-lovers as the director of the classic teen drama River's Edge (1986). In addition to two other good youth-centered films (Tex, 1982; Sylvester, 1985) he notably co-wrote Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge (1979), a film that looks stronger with each passing year.

Hunter's father, the British screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter, fronted for Dalton Trumbo on the original story for Roman Holiday, and was later himself blacklisted. The family went into exile in Mexico, and then to New York. Hunter grew up mostly around blacklistee kids. He then attended Harvard from 1964 to 1968. He ran a film society there, quickly developing into a precocious cinephile and budding filmmaker. American auteurism, spearheaded by Andrew Sarris, was in the air, and it was an exciting time to be a movie enthusiast. On the strength of several student films, Hunter was admitted to the AFI Center for Advanced Film Studies in the early '70s, where he studied alongside Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader and David Lynch.

At Harvard, Hunter was film critic and arts editor for the student publication, the Crimson. It turns out that 42 pieces he wrote for the publication (mostly in the mid-to-late '60s when he was an undergraduate student) are now available on the Internet. What a surprise: especially given his tender age, it's a collection of sharp, thoughtful and knowledgeable film criticism that also gives us a good sense of the film culture of the period. The most remarkable quality of these pieces, in my view, is their keen awareness of cinematic craftsmanship and style--the choices that filmmakers make (or the opportunities they miss), and how those formal choices work to make meaning in a film. Let me share a few excerpts.

Here Hunter expresses dissatisfaction with The Graduate:

Cinematically, the chief influence on Nichols remains the photographer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Haskell Wexler, also cameraman on In The Heat of The Night. When the sun shines, Nichols points his camera at it; if a car approaches the camera, Nichols bounces the headlights off the lens; should a character jump into the water, Nichols makes the camera jump into the water; and as mood becomes essential, well, Nichols can always shoot it with a shaky hand-held camera.

The problem goes deeper than Nichols' consistent substitution of trickiness for style. A great director, Rosselini or Hitchcock, plans his film as a totality, understanding instinctively how each shot relates to the film as a whole; a competent director of narrative films like Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) plans shots with relation to the entire scene. Nichols, however, cannot plan past a given shot, and although a frame may contain an effective gimmick, camera angle, or background detail, the scenes themselves are purposeless and disconnected, largely due to awkward and self-conscious editing.

On why the first half of Torn Curtain is much better than the second:

The importance of the first half, however, cannot be overestimated, as it shows Hitchcock at a point of maximum control of his medium. Breaking new ground in color photography, he has filmed Torn Curtain without direct lighting. Instead, he has used reflected light, bounced off a white screen on the set. This reduces the color contrasts, putting much of the film into lush soft-focus, and almost eliminating unnecessary shadows.

He continues in Torn Curtain to experiment with visual romanticism: Julie Andrews is chastized by Newman on an airplane and as she lowers her head sadly, the camera while dissolving to the next scene begins to blur, as if tears were clouding the lens. Suddenly Hitchcock cuts sharply to the airplane door loudly opening, revealing the East Berlin airport. It is an unnerving return to reality, a visual refusal to give his heroine any means of escape.

He's bowled over by Chabrol's The Champagne Murders:

The implications of the finale are fathomable on a script level, then obscured by the zoom pull-backs that serve as the final shots. Chabrol makes no judgments at the ending and leaves the three in limbo, either to destroy one another or to form a new menage substituting Audran for Christine. The optics of a fast zoom shot are wondrous in that the audience is left with a feeling of simultaneous movement toward action and away from it. At the same time that we move to a higher vantage point with a wider angle of vision, we are jerked away from the luxury of watching action in sharp focus detail. The effect is one of ultimate suspension, in every sense of the word, and the greatness of the ending is a consequence of the perfect optical realization of attitude and theme.

On why Huston's The African Queen doesn't work:

The odyssey of cockney mechanic Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and missionary Rose (Katharine Hepburn) down uncharted African waters suggests tense comedy-melodrama: they must, after all, evade rifle fire, skirt rapids, fix boilers, swat flies, brave swamps, remove leeches, blow up German cruisers, and fall in love. Regardless, Huston injects the action with mechanical uncaring: Allnut and Rose talk genially in medium close shot, one of them looks off-screen, says "Look!", and Huston cuts to what they see; he resorts to this lethargic montage in introducing enemy troops, the fort, all rapids, and the boat Louisa. The repetition of dramatic technique promotes an episodic quality that defeats a build-up of suspense or tension; there is no attempt to vary action and the middle third of The African Queen concentrates solely on rapids: a small rapid, a big rapid, and--out of the blue--a great big surprise rapid, spaced neatly at five minute intervals.

Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain makes a surprise appearance on his list of ten best films of 1967:

In a period marked increasingly by acceptance of lack of craft (witness the reception of Mike Nichols' mediocre The Graduate), Billion Dollar Brain stands out as a low-level case-book of cinematic efficiency. Russell's camerawork is frequently tantamount to cutting: he will start on a medium shot of Michael Caine, swing up to a sign on a building, down to people leaving the building, and back to Michael Caine--all so quickly we might have seen four separate shots...

And so does Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown:

Bernard Shaw postulated that great playwrights by definition write great plays, and this is certainly the easiest way to defend Preminger's' Hurry Sundown, a difficult and dramatically unrewarding film. Like most of the great European directors who work in Hollywood, Preminger, takes little of America for granted, and his films are marked by a distinctly individual way of seeing the world. [...] In Preminger's films, there are no point-of-view shots; Preminger never cuts to what a character sees, instead putting both the watcher and the watched in the same shot. Though Preminger tends to ignore the dramatic world of his films, his camera defines the personality and function of a character by the amount of space placed around him, and by the way he is moved with relation to the frame. The more space Preminger has to work with, the more complex his films become, and predictably, Preminger is a master of wide-screen cinematic technique. At best, Preminger creates a network of conflicting spatial relationships from the many people in his best-seller-based sagas, and his films work on a level far transcending the dramatic material. From this specialized, perhaps perverse, point-of-view, Hurry Sundown is close to Preminger's best film.

In the last 20 years, Hunter has worked mostly in television, directing episodes of shows like Twin Peaks, Homicide, Law & Order, Mad Men, Dexter and Nip/Tuck.

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David Hudson at The Auteurs is maintaining an updated post of Eric Rohmer tribute links.